We all have our cinematic blind spots. You know, that classic film or cult favourite that you know you should have seen but just continues to elude you when you sit down at home as you wonder what to watch on a cold night. In preparation for Martin Scorsese's newest epic, 'The Irishman' (titled 'I Heard You Paint Houses' during the film - more on that later), I amended one of my own blind spots by finally watching 'Goodfellas' for the first time. After all, it made sense to prepare for a Robert De Niro-starring Scorsese gangster movie with, well, another Robert De Niro-starring Scorsese gangster movie. After seeing 'The Irishman', I can confirm that although both films cover similar ground, they would make for the perfect yin and yang double feature; 'The Irishman' is to 'Goodfellas' what daytime is to night.
'The Irishman' tells the true story of American-Irish war veteran Frank Sheeran who, after being accused by his employer of theft, has his world changed when he's introduced to the Bufalino family, particularly Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, who also starred in 'Goodfellas'), who leads Frank into the mafia and a string of increasingly horrific crimes. 'The Irishman' plays less like a traditional film in terms of plot progression, climax and denouement, and more like a bird's-eye view of Sheeran's life, into which the audience is dropped into the most pivotal points.
For the first hour, everything about 'The Irishman' is masterful. The film traverses multiple timelines, which results in Sheeran narrating the film at three different ages of his life, and while de-ageing visual effects still have a long way to go before they're perfected, 'The Irishman' is as close to perfect as we have seen the technology used in quite some time. The illusion that De Niro and Pesci are still in their 30s is amplified by some incredible body acting from the pair, who worked with posture coaches to physically behave decades younger than they actually are. While 'The Irishman' no doubt positions De Niro at its star, this film truly belongs to Al Pacino ('The Godfather'), who as the manic Jimmy Hoffa gives a performance worthy of awards recognition. There's a perfect balance of threat and jolliness to his performance that justifies perfectly the strange relationship he and Frank possess throughout the film.
What surprised me about 'The Irishman' more than anything is its light-heartedness and consistent sense of humour throughout, all while focusing on the sweet, decades-long friendship at its core between Frank and Russell. The gangster genre necessitates moments of violence aplenty, but I found myself laughing during most of them (there is one moment that involved Frank's repeated involvement with a bridge that's nothing short of gold, from De Niro's comedic timing to the quick-smart editing). 'The Irishman' has much more in common with 'The Wolf Of Wall Street' in its breed of humour, but moves in a much more patient and humble manner.
I would to love to sing nothing but praise for the film, but unfortunately, there are a few elements that hold 'The Irishman' back from achieving greatness. Keeping in mind that this is a film many will experience in the comfort of their living room, 'The Irishman' features a number of scenes that will play as perfect spots to pause if need be; however, these moments come from viewer intuition and not from assistance from the film itself. It's worth noting that the film does not show it's title in the film, instead using the aforementioned 'I Heard You Paint Houses' title card. Initially I was confused, thinking it would serve as a chapter-like splitting of the film that was used in last year's 'The Favourite', and I kept waiting for another title card to pop up throughout the film. The fact that this film will, again, be seen by many in their living rooms is also to its detriment; much like recent Netflix hit 'Roma', I just cannot imagine a smaller screen doing the same justice to 'The Irishman'. Scorsese keeps his colour grading simple, but his shots are never boring; the camera moves slowly throughout but still manages to demand audiences lean forward in interest.
What surprised me about 'The Irishman' more than anything is its light-heartedness and consistent sense of humour throughout
'The Irishman' is also shockingly low on female characters, and virtually void of any with prominent speaking roles. Since almost every male character is involved with Frank's business to some degree and therefore unsuitable to act as a moral compass, it falls onto Frank's daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, TV's 'Boardwalk Empire' and Anna Paquin, TV's 'The Affair' share the role) to point out her father's moral blindness... through a few empty stares and less than a sentence of dialogue. It is not exactly a spoiler to state that Frank's relationship with his daughter becomes increasingly strained, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to not give more screen time to explore how Frank's actions affected those around him beyond a few throwaway scenes.
As preferable as it would be to separate 'The Irishman' from Scorsese's recent comments on how our current cinematic landscape is saturated in superheroes, it's nearly impossible to do so when 'The Irishman' feels like such an antithesis to said superheroes, and a mission statement elaborating on his comments. Yes, the three-and-a-half-hour run time is at times punishing, but it never feels bloated to make a point. It moves with the careful, slow deliberation recently seen in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood', and like Quentin Tarantino with that film, 'The Irishman' feels like Scorsese is revelling in the simple act of film making. Given the fact that the film spent years in development limbo, this decision to create a sprawling work feels even more justified.
It would almost be wrong to call 'The Irishman' a film; rather, it acts more like a tapestry. This isn't telling one story, but a number of stories spanning decades that just so happen to involve the same group of dangerous gangsters, sharing the same threads of beautiful cinematography, great visual effects and patient editing. With his increasingly lengthy run times, Scorsese seems to be realising that a life cannot be condensed down into a clean 100-minute arc, and audiences should get excited by the opportunity to experience the art of film in this way. It's a sight to behold.